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Chapter four

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One of the things he wanted from Fouesnel was a new burial pall. The Sacred Hearts Sisters in Honolulu would make it for him, Fouesnel said; but they were busy; it would be slow. And by this time Damien could feel himself dying.

Edward Clifford wrote regularly to ask about Damien's health; and Brother James Sinnett wrote back to say that the gurjun oil was making some improvements: Damien's face was better, and his voice was less feeble. But the oil, as Damien knew, was good for not much more than an "exterior cleansing"; and the disease was inside him, reducing him to nothing.


He very much wanted contact with other people; and perhaps in his last doomed months he still wanted to think for a moment that he did not have leprosy. When Clifford had come ashore, Damien had clasped his hand in welcome. Talking to Conrardy, every so often, Damien would press some gift or other on him, saying: "Keep this for yourself; no leper has touched it." He was more than pleased that the Franciscan Sisters had come to work at Kalaupapa. He used to visit them when he could; and, denied entry to their oratory because of his disease, he used to kneel in prayer in the garden outside, looking through a window at the altar with its crucifix. He particularly wanted them to see and approve the work he was doing on the church buildings. And one day, impulsively, he invited two of the Sisters to eat with him at Kalawao, insisting so strenuously that they did not know how to refuse. They ate under great strain, because Mother Marianne had forbidden them to share food with the diseased; the next day, Damien, remorseful about having imposed himself upon them, went to Kalaupapa to beg their forgiveness.

He wrote to Pamphile on February 12 to say that he was too sick to keep regularly in touch with his family, but that he thought his brother and the others at Tremeloo could very well write at least as often as he did, or more often. No letter came in immediate answer, of course—the mails still took at least a month each way from Belgium—and in the last letter Damien wrote to Europe, in March, to a Catholic Sister who knew his family, he allowed him­self to wonder whether the unresponsive Pamphile was ashamed of him for catching leprosy.

Between those two letters, his condition had become much worse. In mid-February, his hands, which had been spared suffi­ciently for him to go on saying Mass, broke out in painful erup­tions; he had a violent diarrhea; he was coughing badly—perhaps pneumonia was adding itself to his leprosy; his breathing was ob­structed, so that he was getting only an hour or two of sleep a night, toward morning; and in the daytime the sunlight hurt his eyes. Yet somehow, as James Sinnott wrote to Edward Clifford, he


managed to keep on working. At the end of February, he brought his will up to date, confirming that everything was to go to his bishop on his death, and naming a new co-executor.

In March, a leprosy specialist from New York, named Prince A. Morrow, visited the settlement; and at his request Damien dic­tated his own case history. Dutton took it down from the begin­ning, whenever that might have been: the itching on the face at Kohala; the spots on the skin in the early years at Kalawao; the pains in the feet and the sciatic nerve trouble at the beginning of the eighties; then the period after Eduard Arning's diagnosis, with the progressive "disfigurement of his person in a general and marked manner."

With Morrow came a Honolulu man named William Brigham, to take scientific photographs for the doctor. He posed Damien with a crowd of youngsters from his boys' dormitory, the last picture of the priest in the world of green grass and open air and other people. The disease was overwhelmingly present. Damien was surrounded by it in his dozens of boys. His own left foot was bandaged; and his right arm was in a sling, the hand heavily swathed, showing beneath a mantle that covered his shoulders.

Another picture that Brigham took, a solitary portrait, showed Damien, head and shoulders and upper body, as he finally was: a leprosy case, dying. Brigham was no friend of Damien and what he stood for—another antipathetic Protestant, in fact—and his sharp-lensed camera would not in any event have permitted him to soften the lines of the sick man's face as Edward Clifford had done with his artist's touch. Damien's uniqueness of feature—that face which so struck those who saw it healthy with its strength and vigor—had become nothing but a generalized record of the dis­ease. And yet there was still a determined selfhood about him, preserved not in the look of the eyes, from which the life was already beginning to fade, but rather in the well-worn and unmis­takable iconography of the singular man, the singular priest. There were things that Damien had owned for years, that were consummately part of him; and these he chose to wear for the camera: a pair of wire-rimmed eyeglasses, set on the sunken nose,


hooked gracelessly over the elongated ears; and the black hat of a man of religion, battered, its broad brim turned haphazardly up and caught to the crown with pieces of string.

The feast day of St. Joseph, after whom Damien's parents had named him at his birth, fell on March 19. A letter came to Kalawao for Damien, wishing him happiness, and commemorating as well the twenty-fifth anniversary of his arrival in Honolulu to begin his missionary ministry. The writer was one of the Sacred Hearts Sisters who had made the passage from Europe with him. No friendly, informal anniversary greeting came from either Koeck­emann or Fouesnel.

Pour days after his feast day, Damien went to bed sick. Until then, as Father Wendelin Moellers said, he had been "as usual, active, corning and going"; but March 23 "was the last time I saw him thus " Four days later again, he became definitely bedridden; and he began preparing for death.

The burial pall he wanted had arrived from Honolulu. On March 30, he made a general confession to Moellers, who con­fessed himself to Damien in turn; then, together, they renewed the vows that bound them to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts. The next day, he received holy viaticum; and on April 2, Conrardy administered extreme unction to him. He thought only of dying; and yet still he did not die. "Even Saints and Martyrs have to exercise sometimes a little patience," said Rudolph Meyer, who had come down the pali to see him. Damien spoke of his good fortune at having priestly colleagues with him, but more at having workers to take his place at the settlement. His colleagues and the Franciscan Sisters were his Nun! Dimittis, he said; he was no longer necessary.

For a few days in early April, he rallied. The Sisters visited him; there were Hawaiians about the place night and day, as there had always been; and late in the evening, Conrardy would walk from the church to the house, bringing the holy eucharist to Damien, with Sinnett carrying a lighted torch and ringing a bell. Damien received communion, said Sinnett, like a seraph.

Not so his medicine, according to the new settlement doctor,


Sidney Bourne Swift. "Poor fellow he has been a very bad pa­tient." Dangerously ill for two weeks, Damien had "completely tied" the doctor's hands, so Swift said on April rr. Until the day before, when Damien's temperature went up to 105 degrees, Swift "could not get him to take quinine." Swift thought Damien's con­dition was "most critical"; but as a doctor he had "never lost hopes of his recovery."

On Saturday, April 13, Damien was sicker than ever. It was clear this time that the end was coming. Dr. Swift began to think of getting his camera ready to take some deathbed photographs. A little after midnight, Damien took communion; and from then on his consciousness faltered. On Sunday, Sinnett heard him say that there were two figures with him constantly, one at the head and one at the foot of his bed. They were not visible to Sinnett; and Damien never named them.

Wendelin Moellers had had to go back to Kalaupapa to offer Sunday Mass. He stayed there overnight. Early on the morning of Monday, April 15, he got a note from Conrardy at Kalawao to say that Damien was in his death agony. Hurrying to the sickbed, Moellers met another messenger on the road who told him that Damien was dead.

The body was carried to St. Philomena's church; and the Fran­ciscan Sisters came to prepare the coffin. All his outdoor working life at Kalawao, Damien had worn black; in death, he was dressed in his priestly vestments. Throughout Monday, he lay in his coffin, surrounded by the people of the settlement praying for his soul. On Tuesday morning, Moellers celebrated Mass for him; and then the funeral cortege moved out of the church to the cemetery: the cross; a band of the musicians who played at all the Kalawao burial ceremonies; the members of one of the funeral associations; the Sisters, women, and girls; the coffin, carried by eight patients, all white men; then Moellers, the officiating priest; Conrardy; the acolytes; and then Dutton and Sinnott and the men and boys.



From the beginning of his life in religion, Damien had gone to great pains to establish his right to earthly exile; and he had put himself in the way of a disease whose distinguishing mark was the dissolution of the flesh, a mortification bridging life and death. Yet, if Damien wanted death, he wanted it as the end of life as a good priest; and even then he wanted it not for itself, but for what it would bring him.

He had chosen long ago the spot for his burial in the graveyard at Kalawao. The coffin bearers laid him to rest amid the two thou­sand other graves there, facing the altar of St. Philomena, under his pandanus tree.
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